Christo (born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, Bulgarian: Христо Явашев, June 13, 1935) and Jeanne-Claude (born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, June 13, 1935 – November 18, 2009) were a married couple who created environmental works of art. Their works include the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the -long artwork called Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same date. They first met in Paris in October 1958. Their works were credited to just "Christo" until 1994 when the outdoor works and large indoor installations were retroactively credited to "Christo and Jeanne-Claude". They flew in separate planes: in case one crashed, the other could continue their work.
Although their work is visually impressive and often controversial as a result of its scale, the artists have repeatedly denied that their projects contain any deeper meaning than their immediate aesthetic impact. The purpose of their art, they contend, is simply to create works of art or joy and beauty and to create new ways of seeing familiar landscapes. Art critic David Bourdon has described Christo's wrappings as a "revelation through concealment." To his critics Christo replies, "I am an artist, and I have to have courage ... Do you know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're finished. Only the preparatory drawings, and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain."
Christo was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, and his mother, Tsveta Dimitrova, born in Macedonia, was the secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. Professors from the Academy who visited his family observed Christo's artistic talent while he was still of a very young age.
Christo studied art at the Sofia Academy from 1953 to 1956, and went to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) until 1957, when he left for West by bribing a railway official and stowing away with several other individuals onboard a train transporting medicine and medical supplies to Austria.
Christo quickly settled in Vienna, and enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. After only one semester there, he traveled to Geneva and moved to Paris in 1958. As a result of his flight, he lost his Bulgarian citizenship and became a stateless person. His life in Paris was characterized by financial hardship and social isolation, which was worsened by his difficulty learning the French language. He earned money by painting portraits, which he likened to prostitution and signed with his family name "Javachef" while his early works were signed "Christo".
Jeanne-Claude was born in Casablanca, Morocco where her French military father was stationed. Her mother, Précilda, was 17 when she married Jeanne-Claude's father, Major Léon Denat. Précilda and Léon Denat divorced shortly after Jeanne-Claude was born, and Précilda remarried three times. Jeanne-Claude earned a baccalaureate in Latin and philosophy in 1952 from the University of Tunis.
During World War II, Jeanne-Claude lived with her father's family while her mother fought in the French Resistance. In 1946, Précilda married the influential General Jacques de Guillebon. The family lived in Berne from 1948 to 1951 then in Tunisia from 1952 to 1957, when they returned to Paris.
She was described as "extroverted" and with natural organizational abilities. Her hair was dyed red and she smoked cigarettes, and tried to quit many times until her weight would balloon. She did not enjoy cooking. She took responsibility for overseeing work crews and for raising funds. She said she became an artist out of love for Christo (if he'd been a dentist, she said she'd have become a dentist).
Jeanne-Claude died in New York City on November 18, 2009, from complications due to a brain aneurysm. Her body was to be donated to science, one of her wishes.
Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg described The Gates as “one of the most exciting public art projects ever put on anywhere in the world — and it would never have happened without Jeanne-Claude.” Jeanne-Claude said, "Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art. We do not give messages." She also said, "Artists don't retire. They die. That's all. When they stop being able to create art, they die."
When she died, she and Christo were at work on Over the River, fabric panels over the Arkansas River in Colorado and begun in 1992, and The Mastaba, a stack of 410,000 oil barrels configured as a mastaba, a truncated rectangular pyramid, in the United Arab Emirates.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in October 1958, when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of her mother, Précilda de Guillebon. Initially, Christo was attracted to Jeanne-Claude's half-sister, Joyce. Jeanne-Claude was engaged to Philippe Planchon. Shortly before her wedding, Jeanne-Claude became pregnant by Christo. Although she married Planchon, Jeanne-Claude left him immediately after their honeymoon. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's son, Cyril, was born 11 May 1960. Jeanne-Claude's parents were displeased with the relationship, particularly because of Christo's refugee status, and temporarily estranged themselves from their daughter.
In 1961, Christo and Jeanne-Claude covered barrels at the port of Cologne, their first collaboration. In 1962, the couple tackled their first monumental project, Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain). Without consent of authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall, they blocked off Rue Visconti, a small street near the River Seine, with oil barrels. Jeanne-Claude stalled approaching police, convincing them to allow the piece to stand for a few hours. Although he was simultaneously holding his first exhibition at a gallery, it was the Visconti project that made Christo and Jeanne-Claude known in Paris.
In February 1964, Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived in New York City. After a brief return to Europe, they settled in the United States in September of that year. Although poor and lacking fluency in the English language, Christo displayed his work in several galleries, including the well-known Castelli Gallery in New York and Gallery Schmela in Düsseldorf, Germany. Christo began to create Store Fronts which he built to scale. Sale of the Store Fronts helped finance larger projects.